The restaurant sector is notoriously thriftless, says Neil Rankin, but it's about time we ditched our wasteful ways.
One thing I hate is paying off past debt – that moment when you have to put your hand in your pocket for something that's already been enjoyed: the money you took on credit to buy a sofa you've already marinated in red wine spills; the car that seems less exciting now that the new model is out; or that beach holiday when it rained every day and felt like an expensive trip to Hull. Money in most cases never seems well spent with hindsight.
How many businesses are getting that aching feeling of regret right now, looking at how we behaved up until the beginning of this year?
The restaurant industry thrives if the world around it does well enough to eat out. Equally, there are designers, shopfitters, crockery suppliers, smallware suppliers, tech companies and an entire industry of other services that rely on us being flush with cash. At least our over-indulgences create jobs in other industries. That's how economies work and grow – but at what cost to us today?
Six years ago I did a design for a Soho restaurant with some private investors. We had raised around half a million from private money, so we had a budget for fit-out of around £300,000. I found a highly recommended designer that fell in line with that figure. A few months later, I came to the same designer for another project, twice the size but with a bigger budget, and the figure was near to £2m. That sum isn't unreasonable in this world, but when you take into account the average lifespan of a restaurant, shouldn't it be?
There's another side to this, apart from cost, and that's waste. Why do we tear down functioning restaurants to rebuild from scratch? We rarely do it with houses. We don't demolish and start again; we reuse what we have and make it our own.
This is something I've become interested in since I started thinking more about being sustainable in the restaurant process. I was looking at an old-school Chinese restaurant in Hackney and I started to see the beauty in the old-fashioned fishtanks, the decorative room dividers and the kitsch features – it reminded me of my childhood eating at such places. It needed a new kitchen, a new ventilation system and a redo of the wiring, but all the rest needed was a lick of paint and a local artist to bring it back to life.
To preserve and enhance, we're talking thousands in expenditure, not millions. There's also something more exciting about this route over destroying everything that was originally there, which is perfectly fine and sometimes full of character.
Why do we refit perfectly good restaurants? For ego or individualism? Because the concept is so unique that the flow doesn't work? Or is it just habit?
If the billions that had been spent on refitting perfectly good restaurants had been saved, there might be fewer long faces right now. Times like these will happen again and we need to be prepared. In my mind it's time to look at where we've been a little silly.
Times like these will happen again and we need to be prepared. In my mind it's time to look at where we've been a little silly
There are other areas too, such as the ludicrous technology systems we have in place to do basic tasks, which sometimes take more time to set up than they save. There's also the cost of recruitment, and the fees involved with property acquisitions and accounting.
I'm not demonising those industries that supply restaurants, but we need to look at everything and work out how to do it much cheaper. In many countries, perfectly good restaurants are done for a quarter of the price.
The virus is not the only problem right now. Another real problem with our industry is the lack of money being saved by a successful business and unless we address that now, the future is very bleak indeed.
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